The benefits of Welsh diet change for our health, climate and pockets

Reducing emissions from agriculture remains one of the biggest barriers on Wales’ pathway to net zero. Progress has been limited in recent years and while ‘supply-side’ changes to farming practices are necessary, these alone will not be sufficient to achieve significant falls in agricultural emissions. There needs to be ‘demand-side’ change in the behaviour of consumers too.

Indeed, in the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) ‘balanced pathway’ scenario for Wales to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,  changes in consumer behaviour drive almost 60% of reductions in agricultural emissions: primarily as a result of reductions in food waste and in consumption of meat and dairy.

The balanced pathway envisages a 20% cut in meat and dairy consumption by 2030, rising to 35% by 2050 for meat only. The Welsh Government has acknowledged this in its plan for a net zero Wales, but the CCC has noted that it remains too early to tell whether Wales is on track to achieve this. It also envisions a 50% reduction in food waste (compared to 2007 levels) by 2030, and a 60% reduction by 2050. The Welsh Government is even more ambitious, seeking to reach the 50% target by 2025, and the 60% target by 2030.

But while achieving this will be challenging, food system behaviour change also has the potential to deliver benefits across multiple dimensions of wellbeing alongside cutting emissions.

For example, while meeting the Welsh Government’s ambitious targets for reducing food waste will require proactive approaches across Welsh society, they also have the potential to deliver significant financial savings for households, a welcome prospect during the current cost-of-living crisis.

Dietary change to cut emissions has even greater potential to deliver benefits beyond the climate emergency.  51% of calories consumed in the UK come from ultra-processed foods, with around 7% from reconstituted meat products, and 18% from baked goods, including bread. Alarmingly, four of the top five risk factors for healthy years of life lost to illness, disability, and death, can be linked to diet. In order to tackle both climate change and to improve our health, we need to increase consumption of plant-based foods, including fruit and vegetables; and reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods, and meat and dairy products.

However, access to healthy food is unequal, with those on lower incomes eating less well and being more likely to experience negative health outcomes related to diet, including diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.

In 2021-22, the most deprived fifth of the population would have needed to have spent half of their disposable income on food to meet the cost of the Government-recommended healthy diet. Given the impact of inflation on food prices since then, this proportion is now likely to be much higher. A growing proportion of people in Wales are food insecure, with emergency food parcels distributed in Wales by the Trussell Trust rising by over 41% in the year to 2022/23. Adults on lower incomes are also more likely to have high-sugar diets, and consume less fish, fibre, and fruit and vegetables.

Interventions which increase access to affordable healthy food could therefore deliver three sets of benefits: for the environment, for our health, and in tackling inequalities. But this is not a silver bullet. The UK imports almost half the food it consumes, while only 5% of beef and lamb produced in Wales is consumed in Wales. Given our reliance on importing food and exporting our own produce, changing to a more plant-based diet may have a greater impact on global emissions than Welsh emissions. This doesn’t make dietary change less important, given our collective global responsibility to tackle climate change, but changing what we consume in Wales only forms one piece of the puzzle; we also need to change other parts of our food system, including what we produce.

As part of its Programme for Government, the Welsh Government has committed to developing a Wales Community Food Strategy, to encourage the production and supply of locally sourced food. Given the increasingly long and complex nature of food supply chains, efforts to increase the amount of locally produced food will benefit Welsh local economies and farming communities. Combining this renewed focus with changing consumption habits and increasing access to affordable and healthy food could reduce emissions while also reducing social inequality and food insecurity, improving public health, and supporting local economies. Making changes in all these areas has the potential to make up lost ground on Wales’ pathway to net zero, while helping to create a more sustainable and healthier future in the process.